As General Assembly debates medical marijuana, Chatham hemp advocates reflect on potential legalization

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Sam Brownfield has lived with the stress of not knowing whether his business, Rocky River Hemp, will be around for the long haul.

As a hemp farmer and the company’s co-owner, he and others working in North Carolina’s hemp industry, which is expected to be worth around $25 billion by 2025, have been working under a cloud of impermanance. The law that made growing hemp legal in 2015 was approved on a temporary basis, meaning any change could put him — and the state’s 1,500 other growers — out of business.

“We were really worried not just about our business being able to be viable here,” Brownfield said, “but also, all the customers that are actually living better lives because of the products, and I’d hate for that to disappear from them.”

But with the General Assembly’s vote on Wednesday to make hemp production and selling permanently legal, those fears are gone.

Brownfield started the business with his father, Rick, in 2018 — around the time when North Carolina placed an exception allowing for farmers and businesses to grow and distribute hemp products containing 0.3% or less of Delta 9 THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis.

At first, Brownfield said he and his dad founded Rocky River Hemp as a way to spend more time together and have fun. These days, Brownfield says they’ve found a passion together helping people find ways to manage their pain or chronic conditions with their products.

“I got an email last week from a guy who’s been living with brain cancer for 12 years, and he said the only thing out of all the pharmaceuticals they put them on, our gummies are what helps him sleep and help him be pain-free,” Brownfield said. “It’s so rewarding, even beyond seeing the business grow, but just seeing the help it does is insanely rewarding.”

Prior to last week, Brownfield would worry about whether his business would be forced to close if the hemp exception were to be overturned. It became even more worrisome as the deadline for the exemption to expire loomed closer.

The Brownfields started campaigning N.C. representatives to at least extend the hemp exemption before the July 1 deadline.

“We sent a lot of emails, and also, a lot of phone calls,” Brownfield said. “We’ve poured a lot of our time and effort into building a thing here, and it was about to go away.”

The Brownfields got the answer they wanted when the state Senate voted unanimously last Tuesday to legalize hemp and the N.C. House passed it with a 86-25 vote a day later.

One aspect of their business’ future, though, still lay in the hands of politicians: medical marijuana legalization.

The state Senate proposed Senate Bill 711 last spring, which would legalize the growing and distribution of marijuana to help treat several diseases, such as cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and more. But most North Carolina hemp business owners and farmers may be left out of this opportunity, according to Brownfield.

“It costs $50,000 to apply (for a license) — that’s non refundable, and we don’t have $50,000 in cash to just gamble,” he said. “You have to have five years in medical cannabis, which is impossible for any North Carolinian, so (they’re) just cutting everyone out of the program and giving it all to big multi state operators.”

Brownfield isn’t alone in his concern about SB 711.

Corbie Hill, a Pittsboro resident, is a former cannabis user. He was diagnosed with chronic leukemia at 35 and with the diagnosis, he faced various strenuous treatments and severe anxiety. Hill disclosed his anxiety symptoms to his doctor, he said the doctor immediately said he needed to go on anti-depressants, something Hill wasn’t comfortable with.

“I told him, I’m not depressed — I’m anxious, I’m frightened, but I’m not depressed,” Hill said. “He didn’t listen ... this is a doctor who had done some good things for me, but in this instance, he wasn’t hearing me ... I was really scared.”

Hill decided he was going to use marijuana to help alleviate some of the anxiety, and it worked. He said he was able to “be” while self-medicating , and he believes it should be something available to others who want to use marijuana. Not only would people be able to use marijuana to help treat chronic conditions, but researchers could study the substance more directly to see how the plant helps alleviate symptoms.

“It’s not the looming specter on the edge of society, but that’s an important step into understanding what it does, how it works, why it works and then it can really be prescribed accurately,” Hill said.

Hill, though, maintains SB 711’s language isn’t extensive enough in regard to the conditions people need to have to qualify for a medical marijuana prescription.

“It’s ludicrous that someone with generalized anxiety disorder that it (marijuana) is off the table for them,” Hill said. “If you have the choice between something that’s just made of side effects, and that is known to be addictive, versus something that is significantly less so, if not, free of side effects at all ... it just seems unethical to not offer that at all.”

SB 711 earned passage in the state Senate just this week — on Monday night — and now faces its next challenge in the House. Hill said he hopes debates and discussion regarding medical marijuana legalization will spark conversation into what cannabis can do for North Carolinians.

“Your neighbors do this, your friends do this — it’s so widespread, and so many readers know that but don’t say it out loud,” he said. “It’s been romanticized and blown up by both sides into something that it isn’t — I think that it’s far more innocuous and boring than it seems ... by thinking that it’s so much more, we’re beating ourselves up over it and imprisoning so many people over it by not understanding how just everyday it is.”

For Brownfield, he said he’s grateful he can continue to grow his business. He hopes people can continue to learn more about hemp and how it benefits not just the people who use the products, but how it benefits the local and state economies.

“We want to put more people to work and be able to keep the work here in Chatham County and in North Carolina, which we think is really important,” Brownfield said. “We’re very happy that we can still continue to build a brand here and a business that can benefit all of us in terms of how the products help, but also just the tax base and being able to grow that.”

You can learn more about hemp and marijuana legislation in N.C. here. 

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.

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